There’s an interesting and quite balanced article on the BBC today about people – well, women – who opt not to have children. Said women are feeling victimised by friends, family, colleagues and even complete strangers who feel it’s completely legitimate to question them endless on why they don’t want children, lecture them on being ‘incomplete’ or eye them with pity, assuming they’re unable to have children (because of course, if that were the case, your pity is exactly what they’d want, right?).
The thing is, the child-free may think they’re being pitted against parents, but it isn’t so. As someone who is maybe a week or two away from giving birth, I can tell you child-free folks that we’re on the same side. The real enemy is the same kind of sexist bull that means women always get judged by their appearance.
For some reason, female fertility is a complete free-for-all. I’ve been asked the most incredibly invasive questions about my pregnancy, including “was it planned?”, and even had one friend of my husband’s go so far as to write to him (not me) telling him not to “let his wife” choose a particular option for where to give birth. The friend was female, by the way; sexism isn’t the exclusive preserve of men, you know. Now, to some extent I expect it, as I have written about and talked about my pregnancy; you could say I’ve invited some comment, although much of it came from people I hadn’t really shared much with. But plenty of women don’t say a word, and are just marked out as a target by their bulging bellies.
Now, those people who ask the inappropriate questions, assume a paternalistic stance about your medical care and think they can come up and fondle your belly without asking are the exact same people who ask you when you’re having your first / “next one”, question you about how you know you don’t want a baby if you don’t have one (it’s not ice cream – you can’t bin it if you change your mind) and insist that you’ll only feel like a ‘real’ woman when you have one of your own.
This isn’t about the child-free versus the child-added. This is about social skills, common decency and the status of women as the bearers of children. No healthy adult gets treated with more condescension than a pregnant woman; yes, we’re emotional and vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean we’re suddenly irrational and incapable. The same people who feel free to use that vulnerability to bully a pregnant woman are those that feel that any woman without a child can’t be so out of choice, so they can’t resist poking at the perceived soft spot.
And it is women who get the brunt of this. Men don’t get off scot-free; they simply get ignored, patronised or occasionally used as a conduit to criticise the woman. How marvellous that you’ve worked out the incredible complexity of a nappy! How extra-specially lovely and thoughtful of you to look after the baby for a couple of hours so your partner can get some sleep! You’re not completely useless! But I can’t help feeling that while this is hugely annoying, it’s nothing compared to what their female partners have to deal with.
But you know what? As long as we all – parents and those with no interest in ever being parents – stick together and politely, with all the social graces our interrogators seem to lack, tell people when something is their business and when it isn’t, eventually these people will have to back off and go voice their opinions to their invisible friends.
The sooner the better.
This is a really good way of putting it. As you know, I’ve had horribly offensive comments from people about the fact that Terry and I don’t have children, but I think you’re right – it’s really just another symptom of lack of manners, and this all-pervasive idea that we all have the right to judge each other, and comment on things that are really none of our business. I remember when my best friend was pregnant, she was horrified by the number of complete strangers who would touch her belly and start asking her all kinds of very personal questions. At least people don’t manhandle me!
I’ve been lucky that most of the people who have fondled my stomach have at least been friends or colleagues, but a couple of times people I hardly know have poked at me and Ashley’s been growling behind them… I’m too polite is my problem!
I know we’re a social species and we like to share and comment and opine, but the subject of children seems to be exceptionally open to this kind of ill-mannered rubbish. Maybe it’s because women can’t possibly be allowed to think for themselves…
Great post, Alex. I also think it’s important to point out that sometimes the child-free among us are treated very defensively by people with kids — as if we’re judging them, or couldn’t even start to imagine what it’s like being a parent, when actually I think there’s so much judgement around parenthood, especially from other parents, that I try to judge people’s choices as little as possible.
As a feminist but not a mother, I can get equally worked up about breastfeeding pressure groups and people who want to ban public breastfeeding — there is something about pregnancy and birth that seems to invite these really invasive opinions from complete strangers.
It’ probably because, as a species, we feel threatened by things/people/decisions that are different from us. But we need to learn to try to accept others. Or, at least, hide the fact that we can’t much, much better 😉
Absolutely. I think the particularly vocal on both sides (the few child-free who really DO hate children and the few parents who think everyone should be JUST LIKE THEM) have put everyone on edge and that’s when the problem escalates with preventative defensiveness.
Those last two sentences? Yeah, that. Exactly. 🙂